Chancellor-elect Eisen's Letter to the Community

March 26, 2007

To the JTS Community:

I write to announce that, effective immediately, The Jewish Theological Seminary will accept qualified gay and lesbian students to our rabbinical and cantorial schools.

This matter has aroused thoughtful introspection about the nature and future of both JTS and the Conservative Movement to a degree not seen in our community since the decision to admit women to The Rabbinical School nearly twenty-five years ago. Convictions and feelings are strong on both sides. Some will cheer this decision as justice long overdue. Others will condemn it as a departure from Jewish law and age-old Jewish custom. One thing is abundantly clear: after years of discussion and debate, heartfelt and thoughtful division on the matter is evident among JTS faculty, students, and administration. The same is true of professionals and lay leaders of the Conservative Movement. For many of us, the issue runs deep inside ourselves.

Those of us who undertook the ordination discussion at JTS acted not as poskim, or legal adjudicators — that responsibility fell to the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly (CJLS) — but as educators charged with setting standards for our unique academic institution. From the outset, as we set about considering what JTS should do on this matter, three steps seemed necessary.

First, our decision would be preceded by a deliberate and careful process in which the views of all constituencies would be respectfully heard and patiently considered. The positions of both sides would be thought through and the likely consequences weighed. This process is now complete. I will review its elements below.

Second, the announcement of JTS's decision would lay out our thinking on the matter in detail commensurate with the gravity and complexity of the decision.

Third, the announcement would conclude one process while beginning another. We resolved to take action that would help bring our movement closer together. To that end, we have launched — and in coming months will help to lead — a full-scale process of learning and discussion among all constituencies of Conservative Judaism aimed at a reclarification of our principles and a recommitment to our practices. Its specific focus will be mitzvah: our sense of being commanded and how we exercise that responsibility. The first steps taken in this new process are outlined below.

For me personally, these questions about core principles and practices are at the heart of the discussion in which we have been engaged this past year. The immediate issue was the ordination of gay and lesbian students as rabbis and cantors for the Conservative Movement. But the larger issue has been how we can remain true to our tradition in general and to halakhah in particular while staying fully responsive to and immersed in our society and culture. How shall we learn Torah, live Torah, teach Torah in this time and place? Without these imperatives, the decision before us would have been far easier for many of those involved. That is certainly true for me.

The decision, then, has for many of us been far from plain or simple. I say this despite my strong conviction that the decision I am announcing here is the right one. Let me now explain why I believe it to be so.

The Process

As I announced the day I was named Chancellor-elect of JTS nearly a year ago, the first responsibility for considering ordination of gay and lesbian students at JTS lay with the CJLS. If the CJLS ruled in a way that permitted this step, the JTS faculty would take up the matter. I pledged to take faculty opinion strongly into account if the time came for the JTS administration to make a decision.

The Conservative Movement has from the outset defined itself as bound by halakhah. This aspect of our tradition is precious to me, and it has always been determinative for JTS. It is one of the major ways the Conservative Movement navigates the complex path of change inside inherited tradition. Part of being a halakhic movement is debate over what that means: how halakhah relates to aggadah; how the authority of the rabbis relates to that of the communities they lead and serve; how change can be both adequate and authentic. But even as debate on these and other issues has proceeded, Conservative rabbis acting through the CJLS have for more than half a century considered how best to interpret and apply halakhah in particular circumstances. Their rulings have been all the more important, and more contentious, when circumstances were new and challenging. The decision concerning ordination of women was a case in point. So, too, is the question of gay and lesbian ordination. The CJLS first took up the question about fifteen years ago, debated it again over the past several years, and voted on it at its meeting this past December.

The Law Committee issued a split decision on December 6, 2006, a result in keeping with its commitment to halakhic pluralism. The teshuvah by Rabbis Dorff, Nevins, and Reisner permitting ordination of gays and lesbians received the same number of votes as the one by Rabbi Roth that prohibited it. This paved the way for the discussion at JTS to go forward, and the matter passed to the hands of the faculty.

Even before the December CJLS vote, JTS had initiated forums at which students could make their opinions known to one another as well as to the faculty and administration. These student forums continued after the Law Committee's vote. JTS administration and faculty explained to students what the CJLS had ruled and discussed with them what possibilities lay ahead for the future of the institution.

Administrative committees also began meeting before December 6. These committees convened with increasing frequency in the weeks following the CJLS decision. Their discussions are ongoing.

The Board of Trustees, at its meeting on December 7, discussed at length the process and its potential outcomes. The members of the board also aired questions and shared concerns and advice about the question at previous and subsequent meetings.

Immediately following the Law Committee decision, JTS, along with the Rabbinical Assembly and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, commissioned an international survey of the opinions held by Conservative rabbis, cantors, educators, and lay leaders regarding the ordination question. We also polled the student groups most affected by the decision: those at JTS. Sociologist Steven M. Cohen undertook construction and analysis of the survey for us pro bono. We were unable due to constraints of time and budget to include rank-and-file members of Conservative congregations. Nor did we reach every single movement leader. However, many who were not polled directly did fill out and submit the survey that was posted on the JTS website. I have personally heard from hundreds of Conservative Jews on the matter during my travels around the country this year and through correspondence, email, and the JTS website.

The survey findings showed consistent majorities of roughly two-thirds or more in favor of ordination. Rabbis and cantors endorsed the move by almost exactly that majority. Conservative educators, executive directors, and other professionals were in favor 76% to 16% (with others undecided). Lay leaders voted for it 69% to 22%. JTS rabbinical students did so by a much slimmer majority (58% to 32%), as did the cantorial students (58% to 21%). Clergy in Israel were split down the middle. Respondents in Canada were overwhelmingly against ordination.

We undertook this survey as one factor among many informing our decision, not in order to have it dictate policy. The choice to ordain — or not to ordain— gay and lesbian Jews as rabbis and cantors at JTS will, as I have noted, have immediate and significant consequences for the Conservative Movement. We wanted to learn how the leadership of the movement, lay and professional, felt about the matter. For the same reason, I spoke at great length in January with the heads of the other Conservative/Masorti seminaries. I reported on these conversations, as well as on the Cohen survey, to both the faculty and the Board of Trustees.

The Faculty Executive Committee, at my request, accepted the task of designing a process by which members of the Faculty Assembly could inform themselves and give their opinions on the matter. Each person weighed the factors involved — including halakhah — as he or she saw fit. The faculty's input would contribute significantly in JTS's decision, I told them, but their opinions would not be binding. I myself took no position in the faculty debate. The Executive Committee, working with these guidelines, set up a series of faculty meetings. JTS administration assisted the process by arranging for two seminars led by distinguished guest lecturers on (1) recent developments in psychiatry and in its attitude toward homosexuality, and (2) philosophy of Jewish law. Several faculty meetings were devoted entirely to discussing and debating the matter. The voting members of the Faculty Assembly filled out private ballots and gave them to the Faculty Executive Committee, which then passed them on to me. The faculty asked, since their vote was not binding, that I report their response but keep exact numbers confidential. I subsequently reported the result of this ballot to the Faculty Assembly and to the Board of Trustees.

An overwhelming majority of those eligible to participate did so. A substantial majority of these favored the admission of gay and lesbian students to the rabbinical and cantorial schools. Quite a few, in keeping with my request, included detailed accounts of their reasoning. I will draw on these letters below.

At no stage did we at JTS take up the question of gay and lesbian commitment ceremonies or marriages. That matter is entirely outside our purview; decision on it rests with the Law Committee and with individual rabbis and congregations. Our concern was ordination alone.

The final stage in the process of reaching our decision rested with the JTS administration. We wrapped up our discussions earlier this month. Ultimate responsibility for the decision rested with me. I turn now to the reasoning behind it.

The Decision

Many participants in this process — whether rabbis on the Law Committee, faculty and students at JTS, members of the Board of Trustees, or leaders of the Conservative Movement — have experienced and explained it as a tug of war between two goods: fidelity to Jewish law and tradition and our sense of conscience as contemporary American Jews. How does one remain true to the dictates of tradition and yet adapt that tradition in ways compatible with changing realities and convictions? Both imperatives compel us. Both are precious to us. Several faculty members explained in their letters to me that they felt this tug in opposite directions acutely. We in the JTS administration have certainly felt this way. The search for balance is what has made the decision difficult. It is also what has made the discussion rich and, by and large, respectful.

It has not been a matter of how "we" the community of Conservative Jews should treat "them" — gays and lesbians. The latter are highly valued and respected members of our Conservative communities. Those opposed to the change, as much as those in favor of it, have taken pains to assert that this is the case.

That is why, even while denying gays and lesbians the right to ordination and commitment ceremonies in 1992 on the basis of its reading of Jewish law, the CJLS affirmed — likewise on the basis of Jewish law — that "gays and lesbians are welcome in our congregations, youth groups, camps, and schools."

Those opposing ordination have done so, almost without exception, for one reason only: they believe that Jewish law forbids it. Modifying established law on this score, they maintain, would weaken or destroy the halakhic character of Conservative Judaism. Some are convinced, moreover, that a modification of this sort would open the way for other, even more radical changes. But still others are equally convinced of the opposite: that failure to make this change would declare the incompatibility of Jewish law and tradition with Jewish life today, discourage young people from joining the movement, and therefore negatively impact Conservative Judaism. As Conservative Jews, we all sought the middle ground between the demands of tradition and the demands of life that has long distinguished our movement.

We at JTS, as I said earlier, were not called upon to make a legal decision. Our task was to weigh all relevant factors and decide what the right thing was for JTS and for the movement we serve. I, like most of my colleagues, was uncomfortable with the notion of choosing between two teshuvot that had been adopted as legitimate by the Law Committee using time-tested procedures. To reject the propriety of the CJLS process in this matter would call into question, after the fact, the mechanism by which law has been decided in the movement — and has governed JTS policy — for decades. Nevertheless, halakhah had to be a major factor in our thinking. We are an institution committed to the teaching and practice of Torah. In order to decide in favor of ordination, the rabbinic decision allowing for it had to be credible or persuasive in our eyes. Let me explain my own thinking on these matters.

I begin by directly confronting the two major obstacles standing in the way of a credible stance allowing for gay and lesbian ordination. The first is Leviticus chapter 18, verse 22. "Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is abomination ( to'eva)." Is the text not crystal clear? Is it not God's word? Why, then, were learned rabbis (and the rest of us) even debating the acceptability of homosexuality? The question has been posed to me many times. It cannot be avoided by any Jew who takes the Torah seriously. No matter how complicated our relationship to the Torah, how much we move away from obedience to its rules, or whatever our views on the divine or human nature of its authorship — one cannot cavalierly dismiss Leviticus and then claim faithfulness to the larger tradition of Torah of which the Five Books of Moses are the core. Integrity and authenticity require more than this.

Moreover, if one claims to be a halakhic Jew, the Oral Torah (as we call Jewish law and teaching over the centuries) also weighs in with serious objection to ordaining gays and lesbians. There is precious little legal precedent that can be invoked in favor of such ordination in the entire 2,000-year history of the Jewish rabbinic tradition. One finds instead either reaffirmation of previous opinion or utter silence on the matter — though there are legal opinions urging welcome of and compassion toward homosexuals. To Conservative Jews, the weight of Rabbinic opinion is no less decisive than the words of the Torah, and it is arguably more so. As Solomon Schechter explained a century ago, "It is not the mere revealed Bible that is of first importance to the Jew, but the Bible as it repeats itself in history, in other words, as it is interpreted by tradition." That is why the fact of Leviticus 18:22 in and of itself did not free the CJLS or any other Conservative Jew from the need to debate the matter of gay and lesbian ordination.

Our sages found ways two millennia ago to limit the applicability of biblical statutes, one famous example being Deuteronomy's injunction to put the rebellious son to death. The Rabbis effectively rendered that injunction unenforceable. They have defined and limited the applicability of numerous other biblical ordinances, including some set forth in Leviticus. I am among the faculty members (including many rabbis and experts in Talmud) who are persuaded by the argument that established procedures of halakhah allow for and mandate revision of the legal limitations placed upon homosexual activity; or perhaps one should say that these procedures allow for and mandate expansion of the welcome and acceptance accorded homosexuals under previous Law Committee rulings.

We believe that the law can be modified, and therefore should be modified, in accord with our society's changed knowledge about and moral attitudes toward homosexuality, knowledge and attitudes far different than those of our ancestors that guided their reading of law and tradition. Core Jewish teachings such as the imperative to treat every human being with full respect as a creature in God's image urge us strongly in this direction. We do not alter established belief and behavior casually. But we are convinced that change in this case is permitted and required, precisely in order to preserve the tradition charged with guiding us in greatly altered circumstances.

For we are Conservative Jews. The question facing us now, as always, is what the tradition as a whole commands us to do. Members of our community disagree about the correct answer to that question and about the proper method of answering it but not, I think, about the nature or urgency of the question itself. As Conservative Jews, we know that halakhah has a history. The fact of its development and change over time, partly in response to altered circumstances, ways of thinking, and moral convictions, was proclaimed by Zacharias Frankel at the very outset of the movement. It is a given in scholarship on Jewish law as well. The CJLS debate and the discussion in its wake follow from these principles of Conservative Judaism.

The debate over ordination of gay and lesbian students has served to highlight the need for serious discussion and resolution of these key issues of principle concerning what halakhah means for Conservative Jews. Such disagreements are particularly vexing to Conservative Jewish laypeople frustrated at the movement's inability to decide this and other matters quickly and unequivocally. Others, myself included, while no less impatient at times, actually take pride in the fact that our movement struggles over issues such as these. We do so as the heirs to Frankel's founding declaration of our purpose: "the reconciliation of belief and life, the assurance of progress within our faith, and the refining and regeneration of Judaism from and through itself." Both sides of the current debate have acted in accord with Frankel's call for "maintaining the integrity of Judaism simultaneously with progress." This remains, as he wrote in 1844, "the essential problem of the present." We cannot, any more than he could, "deny the difficulty of a satisfactory solution." But we must find a solution.

I believe, with the great majority of my colleagues on the JTS faculty, that the Law Committee, by voting in equal numbers for the two teshuvot, provided halakhic authorization for the ordination of openly gay and lesbian rabbinical and cantorial students. That permission having been given, I believe that the nature of our communities in contemporary America, and the moral convictions we hold, argue strongly for accepting gay and lesbian students for ordination. So does the fundamental mission of JTS. I have in my head, as I make this decision, the faces of numerous gay and lesbian students, colleagues and friends who I know would make fine rabbis and cantors. Their moral character is unimpeachable, their leadership ability remarkable. I am confident that they would serve as excellent role models and guides for their communities. We have the responsibility to train qualified gay and lesbian rabbis and cantors as best we can so they can serve the Conservative Movement.

Moreover, the decision to ordain gay and lesbian clergy at JTS is in keeping with the longstanding commitment of the Jewish tradition to pluralism. That commitment has been all the more central to Conservative Judaism. Pluralism means we recognize more than one way to be a good Conservative Jew — more than one way of walking authentically in the path of our tradition and of carrying that tradition forward. It means, too, that we respect those who disagree with us and understand that, in the context of all that unites us, diversity makes us stronger.

I take heart from the fact that, despite continuing disagreement over other contentious issues in some quarters, JTS and the Conservative Movement are much stronger because of changes that have occurred over the years. Neither the institution nor the movement has splintered, despite predictions to the contrary. I do not believe that we will splinter now, particularly if we take the proactive steps that I will outline below. Nor do I fear the "slippery slope," used by some as an argument against the change we are adopting. Every choice brings unintended consequences in its wake. We never have control over what those who come after us will do with the legacy we have left them. We do all we can to set course in the proper direction. I trust my successors to act responsibly with the legacy I pass on to them, just as we have carefully weighed the relevant precedents, reasons, and implications before taking the step we are announcing here. We owe this precedent to our successors, this bridge to the reality in which they will be called upon, as we are, to build and strengthen communities of Torah. I am confident that, if they are educated in the principles that have long guided this movement and if they experience the special pleasures and obligations that come with membership in it, they too will make decisions in a manner that takes Conservative Judaism forward and helps its communities, and the Jewish people as a whole, to grow.

In sum: The CJLS has authorized the ordination of gay and lesbian Jews as rabbis and cantors. A solid majority of Conservative clergy and lay leaders supports it. The JTS faculty likewise strongly favors it. I am convinced this decision to ordain is right — right not just on the basis of my experience as a North American who came of age in the latter part of the twentieth century, or as a Jew who seeks above all to remain true to the tradition we call Torah, but as an American Jew seeking wholeness and integrity in the combination of these to the fullest possible extent. That, I believe, is what Conservative Judaism is all about.

The Next Steps

Frankel was clear about the difficulty of this path. "Where is the point where the two apparent contraries should meet?" But he advocated that path nonetheless, as did Solomon Schechter two generations later. I am humbled by the long line of leaders and teachers, wiser and more learned than I, who have found the difficulties of charting this path formidable. But I am also encouraged by the fact that Schechter's resolution of the matter was not Frankel's, and that Louis Finkelstein's, too, differed from theirs in accordance with the unprecedented challenges that JTS faced in his day. The eminent historian Chancellor Gerson Cohen urged Conservative rabbis in 1972 to shape the movement in a way that was clearly and authentically Jewish but that would "also reflect our own formulation of Judaism, a formulation that will respond to our situation, our needs as Jews in America." That need is once again clear and urgent. How shall we undertake to meet it?

The proper way to do so, I believe, is not for JTS to promulgate a set of standards for Conservative belief and behavior. It is, rather, to engage Conservative Jews in discussion of what matters to them and why. Many of us are convinced, on the basis of numerous conversations with clergy and laypeople alike, that many Conservative Jews do feel a keen sense of mitzvah, in all the connotations stored up in that word by the Bible and the sages. They feel that there are deeds they should perform, activities in which they should engage, loyalties they should cherish. They feel responsible for all these, commanded to do them, drawn to the discipline of which they are a part, privileged to perform them. They take on these tasks, in many cases, not only out of obligation but out of love.

It is my hope and belief that getting Conservative Jews to talk about these matters will be a step toward greater commitment and consensus. Our communities will be strengthened by the very act of discussing our "obligations of the heart" honestly and face to face. We will come to realize in doing so how much unites us as Conservative Jews. The sense of what binds us together will grow still more if we can arrive at consensus about the norms of belief and behavior that should guide us. I believe we can.

JTS has already taken on the responsibility for leading this discussion. Working with the Chancellor's Rabbinic Cabinet and with the RA and the United Synagogue, we have set in motion a process that we hope will eventually include every arm of the movement as well as professional and lay leaders. Our faculty and students will be actively involved. Stage Two of that process — logically and pedagogically dependent on the first — will be reclarification of the place of halakhah in the movement: the nature, authority, and scope of Jewish law in relation to other sources of authority and guidance. We will embark on that stage in the upcoming two years.

Concurrently, we must and will reaffirm the legitimate place in our movement — and at JTS — of all who take part in this debate. Discussion of how and why we feel commanded, and to what, should reinforce the commitment to pluralism on all such points far more effectively than preachments by me or anyone else could ever do. That discussion, face to face and heart to heart, will serve to remind us all how precious it is to be engaged in the ongoing conversation that defines us as members of the JTS community and as Conservative Jews.

Finally, because our ultimate goal at JTS is to serve Torah and the Jewish people, we will establish and maintain regular contact on the issues dividing us with Conservative clergy and lay leaders elsewhere in the world. JTS will intensify contact with the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism in California, the Schechter Institute in Israel, and the Seminario Rabínico Latinoamericano in Argentina and encourage an increased number of joint missions of lay leaders and more exchanges among the faculty and students at these institutions. We will also take special steps to strengthen the relationship between Canadian and American Conservative Jews. All these actions would have been undertaken to some degree by JTS in any case. They form part of our basic mission as an institution. The decision we have just reached renders them urgent. We will respond appropriately in the coming weeks and months.

In closing, I want to thank the many individuals who took the trouble to write to or meet with me, and in particular those who carefully and honestly explained why they were opposed to the move we have now taken. I hope that all will now join me in focusing on the great deal of work ahead of us. As always, I invite your comments, concerns, and assistance.

Thank you.